The representation of the sexual

The I is for intimacy in a phone booth

The ‘new’ sexual explicity in European cinema collides with ‘old’ gender roles, but might be game-changing after all.

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35 mm are more than fifteen cm. Wait, no need to break out the measuring tape, even though: Yes, we need to talk about sex. Sexual politics in film in particular. Especially, when it comes to current European cinema.

Initially, this text was conceived of being about transition. Transition, transgression, migration, regression, submergence, reduction and co-production, maybe, as these are all key terms for when we talk about the state of Europe today or better: the state of European cinema nowadays. In times when the idea of a melting-pot has disintegrated so often and so violently so as to display its mere quality as a naïve ideal, we are in transition: migration leads to new challenges of finding our places and our identities in specific cultural environments, for example. Precarious working environments lead to an increased mobility of a market but as a paradoxical consequence, also to its paralysis and collapse at some point. But we are also in transition from film to digital, obviously, or from insular production to (forced) collaboration, be it just for the sake of financing a project.

What seems even more alarming: phone booths are disappearing from films completely, and with them a versatile cinematic device also good for illustrating civilization, interrelations, (the failing of) communication, desires, solitude, threats and minimal space – comfortable for one human being, and intimate for two. Substitute seems to come in form of sex – and not always subtly anymore.

However, it was already almost twenty years ago, when a rather young and promising, but for the most part unknown director sat down in front of a group of reporters who had gathered to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of filmmaking in a Northern European country, geographically far away from the big cinematographic centers of the time. With another even more unknown and defiant colleague, he announced to the world the creation of Dogma 95, a movement, which along simple, yet comprehensive ten vows, was to build the foundation of the independent cinema that we would be seeing during the next two decades.

Like an underprivileged clairvoyant, Lars von Trier understood the potential of the digital technology and saw the necessity to justify its relative ‘impurity’ and ‘imperfection’, compared to the clarity and perfection that at that time only the celluloid could offer. In a few years, the world was filled with ‘Dogma’ films. From the United States to Latin America to Europe, everybody jumped into the frenzy of making films without special effects, shot on color and handheld camera, and for the most part, on video, with such a low resolution, contrast and color quality that today most of them would be almost unplayable in any theater, and certainly, not so easily accepted by the audiences.

Maybe for that reason it didn’t come as a surprise when right at the moment when the world was embracing Dogma, Lars von Trier decided to change directions and explore not only the musical genre (forbidden by Dogma laws), but also the joys of the big budget films, the special effects, the superficial actions, the jumps into different levels of reality, the use (and abuse) of post produced sound and music et cetera; in a word, to violate all the principles of Dogma 95.

Given that the objective of the movement was not so much to show the world a new way of making films, but to position a new form of cinema that already existed in a market that up to that point was controlled exclusively by the standardized (and extremely expensive) 35mm print process, that shouldn’t have come as so much of a surprise – and it is also what still defines European cinema today, as it helped pave the way for hundreds of small films around the world, to be able to showcase works which have a difficult stand with distribution and releases.

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And yet, today, almost twenty years later, Dogma is dead and buried, and Lars von Trier is in the middle of the release of his double-volume epic Nymphomaniac, amongst a long, stylish, eye-catching and unapologetically shocking advertising campaign. Nymphomaniac has several explicit sex scenes, and is the least erotic film ever made. Is this what it has come to? Have the political implications which constituted a cinema sexually liberating itself with the beginning of the 1980s when ‘gender studies’ emerged at the academic discourse plan all gone out the window? Are we so oversexed in 2014 that bare breasts can only still astound Russian hardliners or chaste religious communities but the rest of the cinemagoers need more and heavier provocation to even give their attention to a film? More importantly even: what role do gay themed films play in this – and how has their focus shifted and have their means altered, if so at all?

In cinema we are already beyond the barriers society imposes on their condition

The recent edition of the Rotterdam Film Festival showcased a vast array of European films dealing with issues of sexuality, albeit in varied forms, among them, for example Eastern Boys by Robin Campillo, which unites themes of migration and dislocation with finding sexual identity – or the sublime and multilayered What Now? Remind Me by Joaquim Pinto, an essayistic, very personal dealing with aids, the body as a political instrument, and – not to forget – love. These films, too, with many recent others, fall into a time when in Europe at least – apart from Russia maybe, where the fight for basic human rights is still ongoing – the battle for free representation of sexual diversity in cinema is fought and to a great part won. The success of La vie d’Adèle at the Cannes Film Festival, for example, might illustrate that the struggle of gay characters in films has become more one for sexual identity than for sexual intensity, and it makes it clear that – in cinema – we are already beyond the barriers society imposes on their condition.

Today the problem reflected in most European films on this topic, is not that of being or not being gay anymore. And although homosexuality still triggers a lot of prejudices and particular struggles – a film centering exclusively on the socio-political implication of sexual identity nowadays would be perceived as a step backwards. Given that this door is closing, the playground for the experimental, the playful, the gratuitous, the unjustified and even the weird or aberrant is opening.

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A few years or even a few months after many European countries have passed revolutionary laws regarding same sex marriage, cinema directs its attention to the space where the law seems not willing to go, or to expose the place where we think the law should never reach out to in the first place: the space of the intimate and personal.

Unlike the cinema of past decades, where a strong political edge was obligatory for a film on that subject (the sexual plight of the character was always accompanied by some sort of parallel political venture), the sexual aspects of the films today no longer need to respond to the social demands of change and tolerance. Once the law and society as a whole take responsibility over the big issues of sexual identity and respect for sexual diversity, cinema can free itself and push the boundaries of what is and yet has to be accepted, not in terms of being possible or morally accepted, but in terms of representation of the sexual that we are willing to tolerate in the spectrum of the public.

The ‘shock’ in Nymphomaniac, therefore, does not come from the ‘daring’ or ‘extreme’ of its images, but from the fact that those images are part of the socially accepted and part of our daily discourse about sexuality. And an additional weight on this might stem from the fact that – as in all of Lars von Trier’s films – it is actually the woman who is the ‘sexual aggressor’ here and thus holds more power than the man.

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In a currentEuropean cinema which is – paradoxically – gradually falling back on traditional gender roles of a pre-Eighties-era, while pretending to be emancipated and at the same time is exploring new territory in a discourse about sexual identity, the controversy films like Nymphomaniac or La vie d’Adèle generate doesn’t come so much from the fact that they deal with extreme and (self-) destructive sexual desire or with a lesbian relationship but more from the ‘uneasiness’ they create with conventional gender roles in films: the career-pursuing multi-mum usually is still a ‘whore’ for any ‘promiscuous’ act she might ‘commit’, and, in the end, she wants to ‘find herself’ on some esoteric new-age-bobo-yoga-trip, while men remain the ‘insensitive’ bosses to the world – ‘except’ they are gay, ‘of course’ – then they are sensitive, but no bosses either. But also: to which point are we willing to share ‘real’ intimacy on screen yet? Outside porn vids, that is, and outside nudish pics on Facebook? In films that are thought provoking maybe, or inducing self-reflection?

Only time will tell if that current in European films, of pushing the boundaries of what is not permitted in terms of public representation of diverse and borderline sexual behaviour was effective, and in how far it was just a short-lived impulsive or a long-term influential and considerate response to… well, the disappearance of phone booths.


Alexandra Zawia is a film critic based in Vienna. She is staff writer for the Wiener Zeitung and a regular film writing contributor to Die Furche, ray Filmmagazin, the Portuguese Ípsilon, The Hollywood Reporter and occasionally Cinema Scope.

Images: 1 & 2: What Now? Remind Me, direction Joaquim Pinto (IFFR). 3 &4: Eastern Boys, direction Robin Campillo (IFFR).